Friday 29 June 2007

A Broken Link

I had an old grand uncle, Liam Bernard, who lived in a remote part of rural Ireland. He lived as a bachelor in the old family house which had literally fallen asunder. Originally a three room cottage, only a single room remained intact by the time I got to know old Liam. In fact, the roof had fallen in on the other parts and the walls had long started to crumble.

That was 1977. There was no electric in the house and no running water. There was an open fire and old parafin cooker, an oil lamp and a few candles. That was the extent of the technology in Liam Bernard's.

But uncle Liam had been born there and that's where he wanted to stay. He and his one brother - my grandfather - were only infants when their mother died of TB, and they had been raised by the communal efforts of their father and a number of old bachelor uncles.

Liam Bernard eked out a living by a combination of odd jobs - a day in the bog here for a neighbour, a week at the hay there for a nephew - and, of course, the dole when he could get it. He used to cycle the four or so miles to the village to sign for the dole and to buy a few bits. Later on, when he grew too frail to cycle, he would get a lift with the nephew, my uncle Tom, who lived half a mile away. He seemed contented enough with his lot. He read a bit, enjoyed the quiet life, occasionaly played cards with a neighbour, and loved a good joke. Indeed, he was extraordinarily witty.

Liam Bernard had but a single wordly possession: his mother's engagement ring which his father had given him. From time to time he'd take it out when Tom and I called in to see if he'd be on for the bog the next day. We'd start talking about old times, the chat would move on to weddings. And then a smile would break out on his lips and for a second it was as if he couldn't see us. Then he'd ask if we'd seen the ring. He'd root though an old trunk at the bottom of the bed. "Ah there it is" he'd tell himself, turning as he unwrapped the ring from an old greyed handkerchief. His eyes would smile as he'd take the ring between finger and thumb and tell us proudly "that was my mother's ring". In his head, the ring must have brought her back, and for a split second he could hold her in the eye of his mind, right there, as real as she would ever be for him.

* * * * *

The door between the room where Liam Bernard lived and what was the kitchen, now served as an outside door, for the roof of the kitchen was completely gone. And so the door had no lock.

One evening as he returned from a while in the bog, Liam Bernard unhooked the latch and was stunned. The contents of his trunk were strewn everywhere. Before his mind could muster a conscious response, a dart of dread shot out into his limbs. His legs got weak. He slowly lifted the trunk, and rustled through the scattered contents. Again he searched. And again, this time wider and more thoroughly. By now he was consumed with sadness and was beginning to grieve the mother he had never known.

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